During last Monday’s Parliamentary Environment Committee meeting, the development proposal for the American University of Malta was once again on the agenda.

I had the opportunity to be present for the meeting, though I chose not to participate in the debate. Its outcome could be given both positive and negative interpretations, depending on one’s position on the issue, and on one’s sense of optimism or lack of it.

One very positive aspect of the meeting was Marlene Farrugia’s chairmanship. She gave ample speaking opportunity to all those who wished to participate, irrespective of whether they were members of Parliament or civil society representatives.

Farrugia made sure that the meeting was held in a spirit of dialogue and respect, and she emphasised some statements to help drive certain points home.

A main protagonist of the meeting was Mepa’s chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg. Buttigieg is a civil servant whose loyalties to his political masters are clear. At the same time he is diplomatic and does not rubbish those who question him.

He dutifully reported that so far, his office has only carried out a desktop study for the site selection exercise, adding that according to the Agriculture Department, Żonqor is characterised by abandoned fields and dumping, and not by agriculture.

The latter statement was immediately shot down by civil society representatives who know the area well or who possess expertise in agriculture. Besides, it was pointed out that Żonqor farmers are being ignored by the government.

Buttigieg also revealed that a full environment impact assessment will be carried out on the university proposal, and that this will consider all possible sites, and not just Żonqor.

Should this important statement give rise to optimism among those active in the defence of Żonqor from development?

Muscat can pull a Muscat on the AUM issue, by changing his position due to popular pressure

Persons in the EIA business know that the norm in EIA studies is to highlight one site at the expense of the rest. Buton the other hand, everything is possible in politics.

In this regard, the site selection exercise carried out by Buttigieg’s office highlights some alternatives to Żonqor, one of which, in Tarxien, was given prominence in the parliamentary meeting.

The land in question does not have environmental or infrastructural challenges which characterise other possible sites (including Żonqor), and it has Mepa’s seal of approval in terms of adequacy. Indeed, during the meeting, the Mepa CEO said that it is up to government to select Tarxien for the American University of Malta, given that it is suitable.

Given the above, the obvious question is, what is Prime Mister Joseph Muscat waiting for to liberate Żonqor from development?

The ball is clearly in the Prime Minister’s court. This is even more so when both Mepa’s CEO as well as Mario Cutajar, the principal permanent secretary, said that they do not know what the government’s heads of agreement with Sadeen contains.

Cutajar, whose comments during the meeting were curt and carefully worded, also said that the Office of the Prime Minister is considering all feedback regarding the university proposal.

Environment Minister Leo Brincat added spice to the drift of the discussion, stating that he will oppose ODZ development if it is not the last resort.

In the meantime, civil society, opposition political parties and the independent press are all pressing the Prime Minister to publish the heads of agreement with Sadeen, so as to confirm if the government has a commitment to develop at Żonqor.

If government fails to publish the agreement, it would be very difficult to convince critics otherwise.

But what if something else is inthe offing? What if the agreement does refer to Żonqor but Muscat is now changing his mind?

Maybe he did not predict that this issue would have mobilised Malta’s largest environmental protest ever, and is now considering the political implications of acting like a bulldozer.

Indeed, it is voters, and not Sadeen,or other developers, who elect political parties. So Muscat can pull a Muscat on the AUM issue, by changing his position due to popular pressure. It would be a win-win situation and Żonqor would be spared from development.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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